Bears of A Lifetime
The books were some of my son’s favorites. Often we would snuggle together on a couch and read about the adventures of Mama and Papa and Son and Daughter Bear. The bears lived in a tree and many of their experiences mirrored our life—like moving or having a new baby or attending the first day of school. If you know anything about children’s books, I’m talking about the Berenstain bears. More than children’s books, the characters also became a television series of cartoons and all sorts of other types of products. The books have sold millions of copies and there are over three hundred different books in print. Stan and Jan Berenstain began writing children’s books during the early 60s.
Maybe you heard the news about the death of Stan Berenstain. The Today Show reported a memorial service will be held today.
One of the cherished writing books on my shelf is Down A Sunny Dirt Road. It came out several years ago and I purchased one soon after it appeared in print. It’s a different sort of autobiography because it contains full-color illustrations from the like of the Berenstains. More than writers, they also illustrated each of their books. You learn about how they met, how they started illustration work and the early days of their children’s writing. While the book is still in print, it looks like one of those products that didn’t really hit the mark. Amazon.com positions the book as a children’s book (and it might have been in terms of language but not the overall content). It’s 208 pages so it’s a fairly untypical children’s book (even in the 9 to 12 year old category). When more than 70 used books available, it doesn’t look to me like this book is a massive bestseller (but I could be wrong).
Y0u may wonder why this children’s book is one of my writing books? From reading the Berenstains story, you learn a great deal about children’s books. Here’s a small glimpse from this book when they were working with Dr. Seuss, who ran the children’s book department at Random House in the 1960s. They had signed their first book contract and were working out the details of The Big Honey Hunt, which was published in 1962. Notice they were not working through email or on the phone, the meeting took place in person at Theodore Geisel’s office:
“But,” said Ted [Theodore Geisel or Dr. Seuss], “before we get into the internal workings of the story, Phyllis [Cerf and wife of co-founder of Random House] and Helen [Geisel’s wife] and I want to talk a bit about these bears of yours.”
Internal workings? What internal workings? It’s just a funny book about these bears who live in a tree and wear overalls and polka-dot dresses.
“We like your bears. We think they’re fun,” he continued. “We like the idea of a family.”
“And we love your drawings,” said Helen.
Hooray for Helen.
“But we need to know more about them. Who are these bears? What are they about? Why do they live in a tree? What does Papa do for a living? What kind of tobacco does he smoke?’
Ted smoked. We didn’t. There was no way Papa Bear was going to smoke.
“As I said, we like the idea of a family,” Ted went on. “But just what sort of family is it? What roles do they play?”
Roles? What roles can they play? They’re bears.
“I’m concerned about Mama,” said Phyllis. “she doesn’t really have much to do in the story. She just sort of stands around.”
We hadn’t thought about it, but it was true. Mama was there, but Papa and Small Bear were the stars.
“True,” said Ted. “But I really don’t have a problem with that.”
It became clear early on that anything Ted didn’t have a problem with wasn’t going to be a problem. It also became clear as we worked with Ted (we eventually did seventeen books with him) that although he accepted certain broad, general ideas about story construction—that a story needed a beginning, a middle and an end, for example—he wasn’t an editor in any conventional sense of the term. Indeed, he was often dismissive of conventional ideas about story construction. Ted sometimes saw solutions where others saw problems. That was the case with Phyllis’s comment about Mama not having much of a role in our story.
“I don’t have a problem with Mama being a spear carrier,” said Ted. “As a matter of fact, I see the father-and-son relationship as being the heart of your story. Relationships between fathers and sons are one of the great themes of literature.”
What literature? We just wanted to do a funny little book about these crazy bears. But somehow we’d wandered into a symposium on the great themes of literature. It was slowly dawning on us that Ted took these little seventy-two-page, limited-vocabulary, easy-to-read books just as seriously as if he were editing the Great American Novel. (p. 145–146)
Children’s editors take their work very seriously. While the finish product looks “easy,” behind the scenes there is a huge amount of work in any successful children’s book. It’s our own challenge for the writing life. We can learn from the example and path of the Berenstains.